Great Basin Bucks: Hunting Pronghorn Antelope

An Overlooked Hunt

I’ve lived my whole life in the great western state of Utah. When people think of our state they often think of red rocks and scenic desert vistas. For those of us with hunting in our blood other things come to mind. Like the roar of a rutting bull elk are a more common thing to imagine. That or a mythically large monster mule deer slinking through the brush like a grey ghost. But today we are hunting pronghorn antelope.

As a resident I have been lucky to experience plenty of both of Utah’s better known species, but today I bring you a tale of something a little less famous. And a hunt that is not so commonly associated with my home state.

Pronghorn antelope are an extremely unique animal that are far more commonly hunted in Wyoming and Montana than here. But I was finally able to draw a tag for one this year. And today I bring you the adventure I was lucky enough to experience.

The Great Basin

The Great Basin is a massive expanse of land that covers almost all of Nevada. As well as several other surrounding states. The water that falls from western skies into the Great Basin is captured there.  Destined to either evaporates or sink into the dry ground.

The Great Salt Lake of Utah is the result of countless centuries of this process. Turning it into a briney inland sea.¬† Surrounded by hundreds of miles of incredibly flat sedimentary valleys and salt flats. That is where today’s story takes place.

The topography is scattered with particularly rugged mountain ranges. Which typically run north and south. Cedar trees and sagebrush are variably scattered across the dry landscape.

a typical sight in Utah’s west desert

The Great Basin is home to the pronghorn antelope, the fastest land animal in the western hemisphere. Despite the dry and hot climate. They thrive in this open desertscape where their eyes and speed are the only defense they need.

The Hunt

the Desert Tech SRS M2, I LOVE this thing

Speed goats as they are often called aren’t as plentiful as Utah’s other famous big game species.¬† Permits for them are therefor harder to obtain. This year the state saw fit to issue me one of the buck pronghorn permits, and I was excited to fill it.

I’ve done several of these hunts with others but this time it was my turn. I wanted to make sure it was a good one, so I selected my Desert Tech SRS M2. I installed the 6mm GT barrel for this particular hunt. The lightweight pronghorn are lucky to top 150 pounds, so a 6mm rifle is plenty of power.

Opening Morning

It was very early on a Saturday morning. I stood on top of one of the many rocky ridges that divide the landscape. The cool air of fall felt amazing in my lungs. It was accompanied by the stinging bite of voracious mosquitos eager to feed before the desert heat of day turns them into dust.

a lone doe antelope bedded approx. 400 yds, as seen through my Nikon Field Scope

Through my Kilo binoculars I surveyed the sea of dry grass and green tumbleweeds that expanded for twenty or so miles. The terrain is scared with natural drainage formations and the occasional sand dune. Any of which could easily hide the small bands of pronghorn that scrape out a living here.

This year was exceptionally wet compared to our normal precipitation. A lingering winter followed by a rainy summer actually kept some of these valleys green. Instead of the completely parched yellow I am used to.

As I panned across the seemingly endless plain, the occasional raven would glide through the spotting scope. I even laid eyes on several coyotes who were so comfortable and unaware of me perched in the distance. They sat and watched as the sunlight moved across the valley for twenty minutes or more.

A mother coyote watching her pups play

The much wetter than normal year had resulted in widespread greenery. Puddles of standing rainwater in low spots everywhere. This predicament, though a welcome one, had resulted in something I hadn’t anticipated. The antelope were scattered for countless miles due to abundant water and food. They had no reason to congregate as they often do.

Time for Action

As my brother and I sat and watched the sun creep across the valley. I fumbled cartridges into my rifle magazine. Not just any cartridge, these were Alpha Munitions 6GT cases loaded deep with RL-16 and 100 grain Cayuga Solid bullets from Patriot Valley Arms. I’d used them on many occasions with incredible accuracy and devastating impacts.

The cold air kept my fingers from working right. But once loaded the magazine went into the rifle as we continued searching for a buck.

There were antelope scattered  and bedded for miles. Despite their bright white color they are easily hidden by terrain and brush when bedded.

we watched this lesser buck follow my buck and his does for miles

We’d seen a couple bucks the night before. Only one of them looked good enough to burn my tag on, and we sifted through miles of desert to find him.

After a couple hours of watching, we found a particularly large group of twenty or so antelope together near a low spot that surely held a puddle. They were so far away that mirage prevented any realistic judging of horns. But we figured that with that many animals together there was surely a buck with them and possibly our guy.

Sneaking Into Place

From our elevated observation perspective, we picked out a drainage that would provide some concealment to get me closer to them. In a stroke of luck they seemed to be working parallel to the drainage which could provide me an opportunity.  With all my gear in tow, I hustled down into the ditch. Hunkered over I started working my way towards them.  I had to keep low, because if any of the dozens of eyes on that plain spotted me they would likely all run for several miles before stopping.

I’d managed to cut the distance from a mile, down to twelve hundred yards, and then down to only five-hundred yards. And almost exactly as I had planned, I lay there in my position as several animals popped into view through the tall tumbleweeds. As the previously identified buck followed a doe I zoomed in my US Optics FDN25X to have a better look at him. Even at five hundred yards the mirage made it hard to make out his horns, but pretty quickly I decided that he was not the buck I was after. I lay there and shot him in my mind a few times, just in case that was the closest to a trophy I would get.¬†

Another buck we didn’t pursue

I called my brother to tell him the deal was off, and he told me to hurry back as he’d spotted another buck a mile or two north of me and moving further away. We hustled to the truck and drove a few miles to the north to see if we could sneak ahead of his path. And with almost no time to spare, we were setting up in front of him as he worked his way up and over a small rise in the valley.

The Shot

Seconds before the shot

The moment I saw him in the rifle scope, I knew he was the buck we’d come for. He was for sure the best buck we’d seen during both the hunt and scouting trips, and now it was time to take him.

When I fired the shot, he was standing quartered to me showing his left side. I watched through the light recoil of the rifle as the bullet flew the 480 yards to him. The bullet struck him centered in his left shoulder, shattering the bone.

It carried through the ribs puncturing one lung and cutting through the top of his heart. The angle of the shot continued through the liver and all the way to the back of his belly coming out just in front of his right hip. He took several backwards steps as his rump dropped to the ground and he toppled over. We gathered our things and moved in to find him.

Hands on

As I neared the downed buck, I was quite impressed with how handsome he was. He looked even better up close than he had in the scope, and he was for sure significantly better than any other buck we’d seen.

The Desert Tech SRS M2 suppressed by YHM R9 and scoped with a US Optics FDN25X

He had decent cutters and deeply hooked horns, he was just a fantastic specimen of his kind. And one I could certainly appreciate for years to come. A good friend of mine and his son had also joined us by this point, and the four of us stood there appreciating this magnificent little buck. The bullet had hung up in the skin just before exiting, which rewarded me with an additional souvenir.

the 100 Grain Cayuga bullet after traveling 24 inches through bone and flesh. For more information on this bullet, and what it looked like read Bullet Penetration and Tumbling

After taking a bunch of good pictures, we cleaned him up and filled him with ice to get the meat cooled as soon as possible. Then it was time to head back to camp for food and drinks while we recounted each others perspectives over and over.

Note damage to heart, lungs, and liver

Conclusion

I don’t blame people who don’t get excited about antelope hunting, I can understand that the call of a big bull elk or moose might be much higher on their list of dream hunts.¬† But in my opinion hunting pronghorn antelope is an absolute riot of a time.

Make sure you wear your hunter’s orange, but keep it fresh

They are incredibly cunning animals with eyes that will pick you out of the brush, and when they want to get away from you there is almost nothing you can do but stand amazed at their speed.

the four of us with our prize

I typically do all my antelope hunting in the great state of Wyoming, but this hunt here in my home state has been a fantastic adventure. The desolate lands of the Great Basin are some of the most remote in the lower 48, and it feels incredibly romantic if only to find yourself here when the sun dips from view. Watching stars shoot across the silent night sky as coyotes bark in the distance brings a feeling you won’t find other places.

I am incredibly lucky to live like I do, and it is by no mistake that I am surrounded by such good company. I promised my brother I’d give his guide service (unofficial and sure as hell not licensed) a five star google rating, but the five stars go to the great family and friends that love these adventures as much as I do and make it worthwhile.

-CBM

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